Sex and Long Division: Stronger Together?


As a simple-minded, repulsive, apparently demented president wages fierce Twitter wars with actors and athletes and drags America kicking and screaming through an unfamiliar gauntlet of international contempt, the twice-ironic slogan that ill-served Hillary Clinton gathers more irony every day.

Remember “Stronger Together”? Any non-white Americans who still doubt that Birther Donald and his acolytes stand directly in the way of their best interests are paying no attention at all. The hostile message is even less subtle for Hispanic immigrants, legal or otherwise, as the great border wall looms ever larger in White House rhetoric, if not in practical reality. Disrespect for gay Americans, even in public places, has been recast as an exercise in religious freedom for Christian bigots. The sinister extremist Steve Bannon, once designated as the president’s “chief strategist,” is openly allied with alt-right groups that preach anti-Semitism. Loyal American Muslims are treated like Al-Qaeda terror cells. Native Americans? At a White House ceremony honoring the Navajo code talkers who helped defeat the Nazis in World War II, our idiot president bewildered and insulted his elderly guests with a stunningly inappropriate “Pocahontas” joke aimed at Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Which of us is still safe, still welcome at this White House we support with our taxes? Even the word “liberal,” now pinned to anyone who rejects Fox News, has become a Republican synonym for “enemy.”

As the ever-hopeful “together” recedes into fantasy, even the word “us” is getting difficult to define. It’s unfortunately true that many Democrats and progressives of the Further Left are practicing identity politics that grow increasingly narrow and self-isolating. I did not applaud when the artist who painted the martyrdom of Emmett Till was rejected by the politically correct because she was white. When ordinary human compassion isn’t acceptable across color lines, those lines have been drawn with insufficient wisdom. America, the once-proud Melting Pot of the West, now functions more like an egg carton—-pick any three-inch-square cardboard nest and make yourself at home. But at this fragile moment of unprecedented divisiveness, when even family dinners become savage political debates, Americans have been blindsided by a cultural tsunami that splits us right down the middle — no off-color pun intended — and leaves men (49 %) and women (51%) on opposite sides of a widening gulf of recrimination and distrust.

Like most men — I confess to being one — I scan the news daily for signs that the circle of suspicion is tightening. So far, no family member, no fraternity brother, wedding groomsman or friend of long standing has been accused of sexual harassment or assault. But it’s only a matter of time. Harvey Weinstein, I was recently surprised to discover, is the same Harvey of Harvey and Corky Productions, rock concert promoters, whom I used to call about concert reviews when I worked at the Buffalo Evening News. Yesterday the scandal mill’s designated celebrity was Garrison Keillor, an acquaintance whose work and politics I’ve always admired; I remember him offering avuncular wisdom to my teenaged stepsons, one Thanksgiving in New York years ago. I know Charlie Rose, too, to the extent of two or three dinner conversations and one appearance on his syndicated show, where he very generously gave me 20 minutes to promote one of my books. I have several friends in common with Charlie, who hails from North Carolina. Did I have any suspicion that he was a sexual predator? None at all, honestly. My main impressions of Charlie Rose were that he worked very hard, actually read his TV guests’ books and dressed in some very impressive menswear.

Who’s next? The dragnet, the rolling wave of accusation triggered by Harvey Weinstein’s victims has caught up with presidents, senators and congressmen, corporate CEOs, intellectuals, journalists, comedians and movie stars. The accusations alone, thanks to the instant infamy provided by social media, impose punishments that range from humiliation to utter ruin. I don’t doubt that much of this payback is richly deserved and long overdue. But I’m also aware that any male who offers his opinion is treading a minefield. Anything I write that sounds inadequately solemn, or worse yet skeptical about any of those victims’ stories, is bound to be interpreted as covering for someone—-or for myself.

Luckily I was never much intimidated by verbal minefields, and this story is too big to hide from unless you really feel you have something to hide. “A watershed moment,” was one writer’s description of the sex scandals of 2017, and I think that’s accurate. Certain things will never be the same. The first wave of perpetrators included Anglo-Americans and African-Americans, Christians and Jews, gay men and straight, dim bullies and brilliant artists—-pretty much the whole spectrum of testosterone-bearing Americans. The only thing these men had in common, besides their genitalia, was an unusual amount of leverage—-of power, influence, authority over other people.

It’s not exactly news that people — all right, men, mostly — will try to use almost any available leverage to their sexual advantage. This goes back to the history of pre-human primates, to the randy ape of the savanna obeying the biological imperative to pass on his DNA. What may shock us, of course, is how little evolution and civilization have altered his behavior. From the tumescent bonobo grossing out schoolkids at the zoo to Louis C.K. exposing his penis to every female he admires, this isn’t really a lot of progress for 50 million years of alleged evolution. It’s depressing. I stand up for my gender when I think it’s attacked unfairly, but on the whole I’m not an enthusiastic partisan. Once when a young woman sitting near me in a restaurant started crying and confessed to me that her wretched husband had just left her for a teenager, I assured her in all sincerity that if I had been a woman, I’d be a lesbian. I meant it, though of course I see how it betrays heterosexual self-interest. What have I got to lose by siding with women every chance I get?

Men are very often a disappointment, and a disappointment to themselves. Sexual behavior is often the difference between a good man and a man who merely meant well. (This is true of women, too, but since no female has yet been flagged as a sexual predator, it’s not germane.) But a most important thing to bear in mind, as spectators at this parade of predators, is that these shamed and shameful individuals are by no means all alike. It’s not even a matter of apples and oranges, but of many strange fruits. The celebrities who committed rapes — sex by physical force, or the threat of it — are felons who merit prosecution and imprisonment. The same is true of pedophiles, who have imposed themselves on children and adolescents. Unfortunately, a crude celebrity accused of both crimes (please reference Jeffrey Epstein) is now in the White House. Other perpetrators include sad old men of another generation, perhaps senile, who remember — when they remember anything — that in their day pinching women’s buttocks was a common amusement, at worst an offensive form of flattery. “Back home the first thing a girl learned from her mother was to slap away those old men’s hands,” recalled my friend Claudia, born and raised in Italy.

I’m over 70, and free-range groping was never considered harmless in my time, so this least criminal form of harassment must soon disappear with the ancient ones who practice it. A lower form of life is the goatish boss whose winks, sexual jokes and insinuations and unwelcome physical contact communicate his message that every woman in the building is fair game for him. These I have seen in action, though I can’t even guess at their success rate. I do know that it’s always more complicated than the wolf-among-lambs scenarios the media make of some of these accusations. As the office altruist, do you walk up to a young woman with a life-changing crush on her handsome boss and remind her that he’s a serial predator with a wife and three kids?

There are psycho-mysteries embedded here, pure miracles of ego enlargement. How many hours of kissing the TV camera before a tedious mediocrity like Matt Lauer or Bill O’Reilly begins to see himself as an irresistible love magnet whose exposed organ, alone, can turn women into sex slaves? Kevin Spacey, denounced for working the gay side of The Big Man syndrome, reminds us that not all victims of power sex games are female. A radically different animal is the pathetic, masochistic pervert like Louis C.K., whose infantile exhibitionism — exposing himself and masturbating — could never have inspired anything but disgust and immediate flight in the women he targeted. Without talent or power, he would have been doing this in bus stations. In cases like his, seduction is not the goal. When the pervert is a powerful man with a lot to lose, it must be the tremendous risk, the high-wire aspect, that gets his blood and adrenaline flowing. “Am I enough of a big shot to get away with this, even?”

It’s not a unified syndrome we’re examining, but a bewildering variety of pathologies, each one amplified by the power equation. Some of these men belong in prison, some in mental hospitals. Others should merely be shamed, stripped of their honors and sent up to their rooms without supper. But they’re all creatures we hope our daughters and granddaughters will manage to avoid. There’s a second thing I need to stress, for the benefit of my granddaughters and any women who have ever trusted me: Please don’t conclude that every man is a latent predator, that men never behave well with women because they have scruples, but only because they lack the leverage and the opportunity to be Harvey Weinstein.

I don’t believe that’s true. And it’s not true, either, that all of us in the men’s locker room knew exactly what was going on, and condoned it by our silence. At the risk of sounding naïve or disingenuous, I find myself astonished by the number, and the details, of these accusations. I’ve worked both in and around the entertainment industry, where much of the ugliness seems to be centered. While I acknowledge plenty of sexual mischief and intrigue, among these people who are often smarter, richer and better looking than the average citizen — and don’t ask me about cocaine — no one ever mentioned omnipotent, insatiable sex monsters with private harems of vulnerable underlings.

Maybe I walked through Sodom and Gomorrah clueless, a 200-pound Pollyanna in granny glasses. That wasn’t my self-image at the time. But the scandals of 2017 are a kind of “Young Goodman Brown” moment for me, and I suspect for a lot of other Americans, on both sides of the gender barrier. Brown, the protagonist of a famous short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a wholesome young Puritan who strolls into the forest one night, meets the Devil and discovers all his neighbors — and his sweet young wife — worshipping at the Devil’s altar. For Goodman Brown, even though he’s never sure it wasn’t a dream, his nightmare revelation in the forest is a life-shriveling experience from which he never recovers. He lives a long life shrouded in cynicism and depression, and Hawthorne concludes the story, “… his dying hour was gloom.”

The sex scandals of 2017 — which at this rate may stretch into 2018 and 2019 — will have more positive consequences than poor Brown’s vision of Hell, though the celebrations and champagne toasts may be premature. If there’s an end or at least a drastic reduction of sexual abuse in the workplace, that’s no small triumph. If we’re witnessing the swan song of the patriarchy and its millennia of ingrown misogyny, I’m good with that too. And there’s the lasting satisfaction, the warm rush of schadenfreude, when certain men admired and trusted by millions are unmasked as creeps and monsters. Nervous men are calling this a witch-hunt — unfairly I think, because there were no witches and there sure as hell are sexual outlaws. But I’m obliged to call it a feeding frenzy, with so much blood in the water. Feeding frenzies result in collateral casualties; not every man caught in this riptide of accusation will deserve his fate. Does it seem that employers are alarmingly quick to pull the trigger on the accused, to fire them the same day their stories hit the Internet?

Wherever their ambitions take my granddaughters — one of them loves to sing and dance — I naturally want them to be safe, and feel safe. I’d hate to see a generation of young women enter the work force with the fear that a sex fiend is lurking behind every office door and file cabinet. There’s a narrow line to walk here, between essential education and politicized hysteria. Human sexuality is a haunted wilderness of complexity, a trackless swamp where hosts of travelers lose their way. The distance between its reality and the masks it chooses for public consumption — soft-focus Viagra commercials on sunset beaches — is a tremendous distance indeed.

Anyone who pretends to stand above or outside the messy psychodramas of sexual desire is a fraud. We’re all implicated. But with so little empathy or compassion across barriers of race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality or political affiliation, this egg-carton country, currently the least “United” States ever, is unlikely to survive a state of war or hostile mistrust between men and women. What will dictate the terms of a truce? We can’t encourage widespread agreement that men are, by nature, vicious brutes. Unless of course, they are. What then?

Hal Crowther is a longtime journalist whose essays have been awarded the H.L. Mencken, Lillian Smith and American Association of Newsweeklies prizes for commentary and the 2014 Pushcart Prize for non-fiction. His latest book is An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L.Mencken (University of Iowa Press, 2014). Email

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2018

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2017 The Progressive Populist

PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652